“The Neighbors”: A Short Story for Epiphany

Agatha Milstrom sat on her front porch in a white metal folding chair, gripping her fresh-lettered sign and waiting for a car, or better yet, a pedestrian. But here on the slap edge of town where houses and cars were scarce, the only person in sight was Gladys Pollyweather, down on her knees in her garden, packing her azaleas for frost. A waste of time if Agatha had ever seen one in a world fixing to burn any minute. She’d have waved her new sign at Gladys, Everything Is Bound for Fire, but her neighbor would just take that as an invitation to come over and talk about nothing till the sun went down. Gladys never knew when enough was enough. 

Better to sit here and wait. After Agatha had broken the sign in some, she’d stake it down in her yard with the other warnings to the sin-infested multitudes. Judgment, the signs proclaimed. Wrath. But did people listen? No, they did not. They went on their merry way straight to the hot place in a handbasket. Some folks laughed when they passed her place. Most crossed to the other side of the road, refused to look her in the eye. Well, let them laugh. Let them ignore the truth. Judgment was coming, swift and sure. She knew. She’d had hers. 

As the day turned the corner to darkness, Gladys straightened up and waved. A moment later her kitchen light came on, warm through the dusk. Agatha averted her eyes. She wasn’t here for comfort. And that’s when she saw the flutter at the edge of the porch. A grackle, greasy and shivering. 

“Shoo,” she said, waving her sign at it. “Scat.” 

The grackle fixed her with a beady eye as a chill seeped up through the chair and settled in her bones. 

“This is your own fault,” she said aloud. “Thought you’d take the easy way out, did you, stop going south? Well, it’s going to be a long winter so you best get used to it.” She pushed herself to her feet. “Somewhere else!” 

The grackle didn’t move a twitch, just stared at her with that ridiculous eye. Well, she wouldn’t put up with it. Gathering her gumption, she took a run straight at it, brandishing the sign. “Go on, now. Get!” 

That just got her close enough to the ugly thing to see the stab of each feather. It opened its beak, and she turned tail and ran inside, slamming the door behind her. 

When enough time had passed for any decent bird to take its leave, she peered out the window. The thing wasn’t gone. It had turned to face the house and its glittering eye caught hers, caught and held fast. The bird wanted something. 

Agatha stepped outside, her yard bristling with signs in the moonlight, and she knew what she had to do. She pulled up wrath. The grackle cocked its head. She pulled up judgment. The bird pecked at the ground. By quarter past nine, she’d pulled up all the signs, stacked them up by the back stoop, and the grackle was nowhere to be seen. Good riddance to it. 

She turned her back on the low stones of the graveyard now visible across the road and, exhausted by the undoing of forty years’ worth of signs, she went inside and fell into bed, hoping the meddlesome bird was gone for good. With any luck, she’d have everything back up by first light. 


Gladys Pollyweather padded into the kitchen in the fur slippers her daughter had given her two Christmases ago. According to that nice Larry Minks on the radio, it was fifteen degrees out and she only hoped the mulch and plastic bags she’d wrapped around her azaleas would be enough. 
She put the kettle on for tea, rubbed the frost off the front window, then gripped the top of the nearest chair to keep from sinking straight to the floor. Across the way where all those hateful signs had been, now just a layer of frost covered the plain ground. It was a shock to the senses and she couldn’t trust her knees until the kettle went to whistling. But who could have done it? Not Agatha, surely. She’d been out just yesterday with a new horror in her hands, bless her heart. And no one in their right mind would come and carry the things off. It was a wonder, plain and simple. 

She poured her cup of tea and sank into her favorite chair. This was the time to think things out. Clearly some ball had been set rolling and she needed to follow with something spectacular. No more trotting over to Agatha’s with run-of-the-mill sympathy, jello salad and the like. Agatha had been suffering from the wrong taste in her mouth forty years now, poor soul, and Gladys was bound and determined to put that right. It was the thing she had to do before she died. Everything else was squared away. She had her epitaph narrowed down to Gone but not forgotten or Full many a flower is born to bloom unseen. Neither seemed quite right but they’d do in a pinch if nothing else occurred before she was called over yonder. She had a whole legal pad full of epitaphs she’d gathered over the years, all crossed out, each falling a bit short. And the graveyard waiting just a stone’s throw away. 

Pound cake! 

It hit her like a ton of bricks, shot her up from her chair to get the family recipes from the top shelf. She thumbed through the worn edges of the stained cards until she came to it. Heavenly Pound Cake. A pound of butter, pound of sugar, dozen eggs, and a star that stood for the secret. If anything could do the trick, that would. 

Only she didn’t have an egg in the house and Damsel had taken to laying just one a day in her old age. She did not have twelve days. Who knew when one of them might kick off and it would be too late? No, she had to get this done and she had to get it done now. Never mind 15 degrees and the expense. Strike while the iron is hot, she told herself, pinning on her plastic hair protector and struggling into her gray overcoat. She put Baby Blue into gear, backed her down the drive, and rattled straight into town, bound for the Piggly Wiggly. 


There it sat on the counter in the middle of her kitchen. Pound cake swathed in a triple layer of Saran Wrap, the latest in a steady stream of casseroles and sweets Gladys had brought over for decades, as if by their sheer bulk she could stanch a wound. 

Like all the others, it was bound for the bin. Agatha had no intention of eating a mouthful of any of the food, not ever. And she wasn’t hungry, not after such a trying day. She hadn’t been able to get out at all. The grackle had not gone. Instead, he’d spent the day on her windowsill peering in. Once she’d cracked the door and he’d swiveled his head so fast to pin her with that eye that she’d slammed it shut and locked it. That left just long hours of nothing in this stale house. 

She picked up the cake and strode to the bin but just as she lifted the lid, a furious pecking came at her window and with a smash, she dropped everything. The plate lay in pieces but the cake rolled whole across the floor, clear to the window where the bird, gaunt and bedraggled, watched her every move as she picked it up. And the gleam in its eyes was hunger. 

Well, there was no call to punish a bird. She opened the window. The bird did not budge. She loosened the wrap on one edge of the cake, broke off a large piece, and lifted the screen. 

“There,” she said, dropping the crumbs on the sill. They were gone before she got her hand back inside, rushing to fold the wrap back around the cake.
But the damage had already been done. Fragrance wafted out, clinging to her fingers, then to her forehead as she pushed back her hair. Vanilla and butter, tastes snuck by a boy dashing through the kitchen long ago. “Going to town, Mom. Be right back!” 
No! She’d done her part, she’d stayed here with the graveyard staring at her every day for penance but she wouldn’t think of his face, how he’d look at her. All the pictures were turned to the wall and she would not think of it. 

She plunged her hands under the tap, trying to get the smell off them, the smell of the sun going down and her son not home, emergency brake off and flooring it without looking, she’d been so panicked. Why not just the one look back? Then the thud and she knew and she knew. Even before she saw the bicycle on the other side of the car she knew. 

And she hadn’t gone to the service. Gladys had done that, had done everything. She couldn’t look at him, not after what she’d done. People would be whispering it was a judgment on her, after how she’d lived and all. Then there was nothing for an eternity and then just the signs. 

The door swung wide and his footsteps ran out again, always running out, taking that last taste. She could see him now, bright against the dark room. Don’t look back, don’t. But he turned, in spite of all the blank backs of the pictures, he turned, looking older than he’d been and there was nothing in his face but grinning. 

In the dark kitchen, Agatha held shaking hands up to her face, felt the tears streaming down. Then she fumbled for a plate, wiped the dust off it, pulled all the wrap off the cake and cut herself a slice, then another and another before she opened the front door to put the rest out for him.


Gladys Pollyweather opened the door to Agatha who was holding a dirty plate with something indescribable piled on top, her gray hair wild around her face. 

“I broke your plate so you can keep this one, and I made you something as a . . . as a thank you. It didn’t come out like the picture.” 

Gladys looped her arm through Agatha’s bony one and pulled her into the kitchen before her neighbor could protest. “I’ll just put on a kettle. We’ll dunk the . . . well . . . we’ll dunk them.”

They hammered their way through what turned out to be Agatha’s take on bran muffins. “We’re going to chip a tooth on these,” said Agatha, dunking with gusto. “I forgot cookbooks were so dratted literal.”  

When Agatha had gone, Gladys pulled out her yellow legal pad and struck a line through Gone but not forgotten and Full many a flower. She knew now beyond a shadow of a doubt; it had come to her with the first bite of Agatha’s muffin. Below the crossed-out list she wrote in short clear strokes, “Eye hath not seen neither hath ear heard . . .”

There. Now she was ready. 

Across the way, Agatha was calling a mechanic to come service a car that hadn’t been driven in forty years. She needed to get into town for a bag of topsoil for her yard, a package of snack cakes, and some dadblame birdseed. 

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